The wrong trousers? How strides got a makeover

Strides have been given an extreme makeover for spring. Our style experts give their verdicts on whether this trend's got legs in the real world
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Be brave, urges Harriet Walker, and step into the future of fashion

It seems to me that trousers are the one article of clothing that people get nervous about fiddling with. If we're talking dresses, coats or even blouses, playing with proportion or adding a ruffle here and there is generally considered a good thing. Without such details, your wardrobe might get a little stale or (whisper it) boring. So why remain content with so-so strides?

Trousers are also one of few wardrobe staples that are always practical: as long as there are two leg-holes and a crotch, you're laughing. So, trading in your traditional trews need not mean causing yourself any discomfort.

In fact, this summer's "unusual trouser" trend is one of the easiest offerings that the catwalks have thrown up in the past few seasons – autumn's gothic look required unilateral wardrobe overhauls from last summer's brights to all-enveloping black, and those skin-tight vinyl leggings were pretty hard to pull off, both literally and metaphorically. What we have now is a trend that is at once directional and avant-garde, but which is also self-contained and incremental – you need only buy one item, in as extreme a style as you can manage. Unconventional trousers are suitable for the fretful and the fearless alike.

It began with Vivienne Westwood's 1983 Pirates collection, in which she showed drop-crotch, dhoti-style trousers based on an 18th-century pattern for men's breeches. "I think they're brilliant," she gushed in a recent television interview, "but they make you look like you've shat your pants." This earthy observation will not be unfamiliar to the regular wearer of weird trousers, but it's to be appreciated as a humorous way of expressing delight at your snazzy reinterpretation of the female silhouette. And Topshop have got some great pirate-inspired Union Jack pants.

Dhotis are unfairly seen as unflattering and, well, a bit baggy, making the thin look thinner and the fat fatter. But this season's cut combines the low crotch with a high waist and tapering leg, elongating the torso and lengthening the limbs, while draping your own baggy bits in swathes of fabric from hip to knee. The dhoti should actually be viewed as a sartorial saviour for this pear-shaped isle, rather than decried as further evidence of fashion's tyranny of slenderness. Husbands and boyfriends may be disappointed by the lack of cling at posterior level, but the strange-trouser trend invites a more highbrow approach than mere "date-dressing". And let's not forget that Scheherazade and Salome did some of their finest work in dhotis – not for them a stretch bootcut.

But a dropped crotch does not a trend make, although the cut was spun in many different ways in the collections, from androgynous at Rick Owens to YSL's glam version and uptown bourgeois at Max Azria. In the challenging-trouser canon, there was also wide-leg crops, which were pleasingly 1930s-golfer-meets-sailor, and more recognisable harem pants, pleated at hip and ankle. Paul Smith's were as exotic as a Turkish Delight ad. Designers also pulled in waists and bagged out hips to turn proportions on their head, as at Chloé, where gold lamé drove this trend home.

Similarly, Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga has been padding hips for many a season now, appealing to a clientele that values design aesthetic and intellectualised fashion over usual notions of "attractiveness". It's an extreme look and choice to make, but it's an interesting one that is refreshing to see, against a cultural backdrop of spray-tans and cleavage-disgorging bandage dresses.

So, while "unusual trousers" are not necessarily for the shrinking violet, you can choose the degree to which you participate in the fray. Don't pooh-pooh them – people thought skinny jeans were outré once.

Try out this look and the joke's on you, warns Carola Long

Elegance is refusal," said Coco Chanel, providing the sartorially risk-averse everywhere with a handy mantra for avoiding dodgy trends. And, for me, one look to refuse this season is a pair of, well, let's just be kind and call them "challenging" trousers. This style has been evolving and mutating – like a particularly vicious strain of the flu virus – ever since Balenciaga showed jodhpurs with exaggerated thighs for Autumn 2007. We've had pegs, bananas and carrot trousers – and this season the trend has reached its apogee with styles that could, in the spirit of grocery-inspired nomenclature, be described as a bag-of-frozen-peas-down-your-pants trousers.

It's not that this season's harem and dhoti pants – as styles with a dropped crotch, lots of loose fabric in the same area, and tight ankles are more officially known – are intrinsically unattractive; a well-chosen pair can look louche. Rather, it's that doubts are taking hold now that the trend has gathered momentum, spread to the high street and fused with other styles and fabrics to create Frankenstein-like hybrids.

Anyone who hoped that leather or wet-look leggings were as bad as it gets should take a deep breath and find something steady to hold on to before looking at Topshop's electric blue dhoti trousers (suitable for gap-year beach bongo players) or Acne's baggy leather dhoti pants with an elasticated waist (think kinky steelworker with a penchant for comfort).

Plain dhoti trousers can look cool, but combine a comedy shape with a mad fabric, such as gold lamé at Chloé, and just nipping down to the shops becomes an exercise in slapstick.

Maybe it's the prescriptive dictates of high fashion and body fascism that have led us to see slim trousers or straight, wide, Katharine Hepburn-style trousers that elongate the legs and slim the bottom as desirable – but I'm not so keen to subvert the status quo that I'm willing to sport a pair of nappy-like, leg-truncating, bottom-exaggerating strides. Equally, I'm not hugely bothered about male approval, but neither am I actively looking to attract male cries of "Hammer time!" or the kind of bewildered facial expressions normally caused by trying to figure out what pre-pack administration is.

Really, what are the potential rewards of baggy trousers? Fashion points for fearlessly embracing a difficult trend? Maybe, although it's too late to have been there at the beginning. At this stage in the look's life cycle, one risks looking like – oh, the horror – a late adopter. Similarly, with the economy and most people's personal finances about as stable as a pair of five-inch Louboutins on an icy street, is now really the time to start buying into fads instead of long-lasting, or just dazzlingly beautiful, pieces?

Having said that, like shopping at Lidl, ageing or the credit crunch, dodgy trends tend to get everyone in the end. Asos reports that its numerous "out there" trouser styles – from wet look harem pants (eek!) to jersey cuffed hem trousers – are proving popular. Come back to me when the season is in full swing (like the saggy, baggy bottom of a pair of harem pants) and I can't swear that I won't be reluctantly channelling MC Hammer with the best of 'em.

Fashion's revolving door: What's in & out this week

IN... Tribal

Futuristic tribal, or 'boho-tech', has finally hit the high street, so think updated Aztec: Montezuma on a night out in Shoreditch, or Pocahontas meets 'Blade Runner'. Keep shapes simple and fuss-free, and make a statement with bright colours and graphic patterns. Try Topshop's £38 T-shirt dress.

OUT... Travel

Boho is dead, long live Boho! We're sick of those global travellers who "find themselves" by putting on an arm's worth of cheap bangles and a pashmina. Long skirts, shearling gilets and coin belts are more boohoo than boho – the new wave is science-fiction, not gap year affliction.

Harriet Walker